Labor commissioner says unemployment benefits could be lowered

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(Host) Vermont’s unemployment insurance system is stressed as more people lose their jobs. The labor commissioner says that could force the state to lower benefits and increase taxes on employers.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) So many people were filing unemployment claims in late December and early January that the automated phone system was overwhelmed.

People who wanted to sign up for benefits got repeated busy signals or recordings.

(Busy Signal) Sound of operator recording.

(Sneyd) Labor Commissioner Patricia Moulton Powden suggested that to cope, people should think of the dial-in filing like a radio contest … just put your phone on redial and keep trying.

She wishes she hadn’t put it that way.

(Powden) “I recognize a lot of people may have taken offense to that comment and I really apologize to anyone who did take offense. It really was more illustrative of a dialing technique. It certainly did not imply that unemployment benefits, which are so important to those who are unemployed, even approaches anything like a contest.”

(Sneyd) Moulton Powden says the system has improved because more people have been assigned to answering the phones.

Another longer-term challenge faces the system now. The state’s unemployment insurance fund could be depleted within a year.

The Douglas administration has proposed capping the benefits at $409 a week, a drop of $16. And taxes paid into the fund by employers would rise.

Moulton Powden says that’s a bitter pill during a recession.

(Powden) “There probably couldn’t be a worse time to be talking about any of these changes. Employers can’t afford increased expenses. … Likewise it’s an unfortunate time to be looking at any kind of adjustments for beneficiaries because they’re in the same boat: trying to keep the bills paid.”

(Sneyd) Without changes, the unemployment fund will take in $55 million. But it will pay out almost three times that — $160 million – in benefits this year.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

AP Photo: Toby Talbot

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